It is tempting to start this by telling you that I’m sitting in my kitchen sink as I write, like the narrator of ‘I Capture the Castle’. Of course, I’m not because, although our central heating has conked out and we are practically burning furniture, paper has turned into screen and ink into electronic stylus. Instead, I am finally entering the sacred mysteries of 21st century social media and technology in order to access the remote classroom. It has been a wilful resistance. For me English has always been the words: words on a page, preferably thick vellum, with print so rich it sinks into the surface of the paper. Now it is screen shots and chats, Teams and audio, Google Meets and video Powerpoint. None of these struck me as lovely words on Monday, not like ‘nightingale’, ‘espoused’, ‘myrtle’ and ‘soul’. At least not at first. My first week of remote teaching has been a journey of loathing, but also love.
So here are ten things to loathe and love about remote teaching:
- It magnifies everything: voice, bad hair (even on audio), bad points, unclear instructions, bossiness.
- Mr Catherwood is not immediately on hand to complete every half-remembered quote. You know, the end of that line from Auden, the one just before the war, 1939. Ah…that’s it: ‘an affirming flame.’
- Missing the walk down to the lunch hall in spring, when they are lovingly cutting the grass on the playing fields into neat rectangles. There is no better shop window for a season.
- No free chocolate digestives at break.
- Realising too late that the loveliest place to sit in school is the bay window in the library where I spent my last lesson with Y13. Gloriously stoic in the face of cancelled exams, they opted to read George Eliot’s Middlemarch aloud: that was a great moment.
- The pupils are great at it: a cracking point on structure in Edith Wharton’s ‘Summer’; a beautifully perceptive reading of Blake’s ‘Infant Joy’; proper insight into Julia’s voice in ‘1984’, and comments from those who do not readily speak up: the invisible has made them visible.
- The words are still the same: Dickinson’s life is still a ‘loaded gun’. The clock still strikes thirteen in the opening of Orwell. Viola would still make a willow cabin at her lover’s gate. They are also much easier to see.
- I can pick daffodils from my garden at break-time, instead of chocolate digestives. Wordsworth was onto something.
- Great points do not get lost in the hurly burly of a live lesson. Instead they are, like a thing of beauty, a joy forever. It is a less disposable world than I realised.
- It magnifies everything. At the end of each lesson this week every pupil wrote ‘thanks miss’ on our team chat. ‘Thank you miss’, ‘thank you miss’, over and over again, with smiley faces, hearts and thumbs: not words, but so gratefully received.
So as this term comes to its remote end, as Auden would say (wait a second whilst I get Mr C on the Teams chat) let the last ‘thinks be thanks.’ Thank you year 11, thank you 12, thank you year 13, thank you very much Highgate. The 21st century is not the easiest place to be at the moment, but the sun is shining on the last day of term, and the words still work.
The Highgate Contemporary 21 – Novels chosen by and for Highgate pupils
Rebecca Hyam joined Highgate as an English teacher 12 years ago after a career in journalism. She was Head of Department for five years and recently took up the post of Director of Reading, Creativity and Literacy in the school. In her new role she is promoting the power of both reading and creative writing in the lives of young people, as well as continuing to teach at both Highgate and LAET.